Grimly plausible, deftly told, brilliantly narrated tale of what happens when we lock the rest of the world out to protect ourselves from climate change.
John Lanchester’s “The Wall” is an extended metaphor for the direction Britain seems to be heading in. In a not too distant future, when the oceans have risen, beaches are a thing of the past and much of the world’s population is homeless and or starving, Britain has built a massive wall around the island to lock out “The Others” who are desperate to make a life in Britain. The idea is grimly plausible and as hard to look away from as the scene of a car wreck.
When I bought “The Wall”, I wondered whether the extended metaphor thing would work as a novel or whether it would feel too much like a didactic tool or a Cassandra-like warning. The warning is definitely there but most of my attention was on Joseph Kavanagh, a young man telling the story of his time as a Defender on The Wall and the things that happened to him afterwards.
In this society, every young person serves two years on the Wall as a Defender. Well, except for the Elite who are suspected of finding a way around such things. Defenders keep The Others out. Others who make it through the Wall, become Help, indentured servants whose children will be born as citizens. If Others make it over the Wall, Defenders equal in number to the Others who made it through, are put out to sea in an open boat and banished.
Kavanagh is bright, observant, has a vague ambition to work his way up to the Elite, tends towards introspection and sometimes, even poetry. He describes the experience of the Wall as “Concrete. Sea. Sky”. He educates us on the different kinds of cold you feel on the wall and how to survive a twelve-hour shift by learning to let time pass through you rather than trying to pass through time.
As he works his way through his two-year tour of duty on the Wall, he becomes a Defender. His fellow Defenders are his family. They share a bond that only ex-Defenders recognise.
Like his comrades, Kavanagh spends his time in the cold on the wall thinking about food and sex and what he’ll do after the Wall. His routine is broken only by trips home to parents he can’t communicate with. Parents who’ve never been on the Wall. Parents who are part of the generation whose choices caused the Change that raised the oceans and created the wall.
Kavanagh tells his story plainly in a way that is intimate and honest and also laden with a sense of doom and foreknowledge of regret. Even when he is describing combat, he is calm and untheatrical. This makes him easy to like and to identify with and gives what happens to him and the people around him an emotional impact stronger than the words he uses.
“The Wall” will make you think. It will also make you cry. I recommend it to you if you want a fresh, clear voice to help you explore a possible future as a warning to our present.
The audiobook version is narrated by Will Poulter, who gets the pacing and the tone exactly right and adds power to the text. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of his narration.